Officials consider reservations for airport security; TSA could emulate restaurant system to reduce lines

Like golfers who reserve tee times and diners who reserve restaurant slots, airline passengers may be able to reserve the time they go through airport security.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is exploring whether it can guarantee a short wait at checkpoints with a reservation system aimed at enticing travelers to go through security at off-peak times.

"It's like Open Table, only for checkpoints," TSA chief Kip Hawley said, referring to an online restaurant reservation system.

The concept is preliminary. The TSA is asking businesses for ideas on creating a reservation system that would reduce the checkpoint lines that grow long during peak travel periods in the early morning and late afternoon. "If we have a smoother flow going through, that's a much calmer environment and a better security environment," Hawley said.

Travelers reserving checkpoint slots probably would have to arrive earlier than usual, perhaps by as little as 20 to 30 minutes, Hawley said. They also would probably have to pay -- either a fee for each reservation or an annual subscription for unlimited reservations at participating airports.

Frequent business travelers would happily show up earlier if they "had a specific time at the checkpoint and weren't going to have to waste time standing in line," Hawley said.

A steady stream of travelers at checkpoints throughout a day also would ease scheduling problems for security screeners caused by the large rushes of people followed by long lulls.

Aviation groups and consultants are reserving optimism for a concept they say would add little convenience and lots of hassle to travelers already struggling to reserve flights, cars and hotels.

"This has no appeal to me," said Gloria Bender, managing principal of transportation consultants TransSolutions and an expert on airport lines. "I don't exactly understand the value of offering somebody the opportunity to arrive off-peak."

Hawley acknowledged potential problems and hopes an enterprising company will figure out a way to make checkpoint reservations work as they do at museums and at Disney World.

"If somebody could put that together for us, we would do it in a heartbeat," Hawley said.

"The TSA would do well to stop diverting its limited resources away from programs that could more efficiently screen all passengers," said David Castelveter of the Air Transport Association, an airline trade group.

Computers that help set flight schedules could be used to give travelers five- to 10-minute windows for arriving at checkpoints. "There certainly is a chance that we can make this work," said Charles Chambers, security chief for the Airports Council International, an airport trade group.

Many business travelers already have a faster trip through security because they belong to airline clubs that provide reserved lines at checkpoints.

Other travelers have an incentive to fly at times when security lines are shorter "because you can usually get a cheaper airfare off-peak," Bender said.

Caleb Tiller of the National Business Travel Association said, "It's not entirely clear why we need a reservation system to deal with peak times rather than adding TSA staff and (checkpoint) lanes." A shorter wait

How an airport checkpoint reservation system might work:

*Travelers would contact a contractor handling reservations.

*An approximate screening time would be assigned.

*Travelers would enter a reserved security line and be through a checkpoint in five to 10 minutes.

Source: Transportation Security Administration